BC Undergrads as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deists”?

by Mark Massa, SJ


Mark Massa, S.J., is Dean of Boston College's School of Theology and Ministry, as well as professor of church history. The research area of his last three books has been the American Catholic experience since World War II. He taught at Fordham University for 20 years (where he started the Curran Center for American Catholic Studies) before coming to BC in 2010.


In 2005, Christian Smith, a sociologist of religion at the University of Notre Dame, published a timely – and for those of us teaching theology to undergraduates in Jesuit institutions – extremely provocative study of the religious beliefs of young adults in the United States. Smith’s book, entitled Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, was based on hundreds of one-on-one interviews conducted by the University of North Carolina between 2001 and 2005 in its “National Study of Youth and Religion.”

In undertaking this mammoth task, Smith had wanted to explore a number of assumptions about the religious beliefs and practices of high school and college students in the United States. He had wanted to see if American young adults really were alienated from the institutional religion of their parents and grandparents (as much of the literature argued); he also wanted to explore whether high school and college age students were actually opting for “alternative” styles of spirituality and spiritual practice (yoga, Zen Buddhism, transcendental meditation, etc.) in order to construct more authentic, postmodern styles of religious practice. In this, Smith was reacting to much social scientific literature of the past few decades, implying that increasing numbers of young people in the U.S. were constructing “personal, bricolage spiritualities, eclectically mixing and matching spiritual practices from diverse faiths” in order to replace membership in churches or synagogues.


What Smith found (after hundreds of interviews of young people across the country from a variety of religious faiths) was that these assumptions were largely wrong; there was no evidence that Americans between 14 and 21 were flocking from traditional religious groups (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or Muslim) to alternative religious visions. Nor was there any demographic evidence of an upsurge in the membership of groups like the Vedanta Societies, Buddhist retreat groups, or Sufi mysticism. Smith noted that while this seemed like good news for campus ministry programs like that at Notre Dame, there had emerged in his interviews evidence of another trend – a trend that was actually more disturbing than a mass exodus of young people from traditional churches.


Smith documented that while most American teenagers continued to practice the religious faith of their parents – going to church on Christmas Eve and Easter and for weddings and funerals, or to synagogue on the High Holy Days – many of those same young people actually subscribed to a very different kind of faith in navigating their everyday lives and relationships. This faith did not lead to any formal severing of ties with the faith they were baptized or raised in, but actually represented the dominant religious vision that shaped the faith lives of the young people to whom he talked.


Thus, while most of the young people Smith talked to freely identified themselves as Catholics, Baptists or Jews, only a fraction of them actually elucidated the theological beliefs of their self-identified religious group when asked “what beliefs motivate you in your everyday life?” and “what values do you use in making ethical or moral decisions?” The answers he received to these questions bore very little relation to the grand theological and moral systems of Christianity, Judaism or Islam. Smith in fact argued that the answers to these questions (about the day-to-day faith and practice of his respondents) constituted an alternative religion – not replacing the denominational labels that these young people continued to use in identifying themselves, but displacing the established beliefs and practices in such a way as to constitute what was, in fact, a completely separate religion. Smith called this faith “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” which had a simple 5-part creed:


  1. A God exists who created and orders the world, and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be nice, good and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem. (Smith termed this fourth part of the creed as belief in “God as Divine Butler” or “Cosmic Therapist”)
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die (thus the common comment made that “we know he’s in a better place” at funerals).


Smith was at great pains to point out that not a single young person to whom he talked had identified him or herself as a “moralistic therapeutic deist,” and indeed some were quite upset if he implied that they were not, in fact, real practitioners of the faith they identified as their own. Nonetheless, Smith pointed out that this parallel faith that many of the young people outlined was the more insidious precisely because it was so comfortable and widely-accepted. It seemed to make very few moral demands on his interviewees, and was especially dangerous exactly because it seemed so “politically correct”: who, he observed, would be offended by preaching niceness, or the message that we should feel good about ourselves? The very ease of holding such a faith was, in Smith’s estimation, part of its problem: can genuine religious faith actually demand so little of its adherents? And can genuine religious faith be so vague?


Smith answered “no” to these last two questions: the theological fly in the ointment was precisely that this faith  so centered on niceness, on self-worth, and on being inoffensive to those who believe other than we do  was actually idolatrous: Our needs, security and desires were the center of this religion, not God. God was brought in when we needed the Divine Butler or the Cosmic Therapist, but was otherwise extraneous to living our day-to-day lives. Smith pointed out that the worst theological sin in the great traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam was not heterodoxy, but idolatry: the worship and honoring of anything other than the Holy One. And Smith argued that the faith of Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism (MTD)  centered on being “nice” (moralism), on feeling good about ourselves (the cult of the therapeutic), and calling on God when we needed security or comfort (deism) – was actually centered on the needs and feelings of its practitioners, not on God. And to that extent, it bore little if any relation to the teachings of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.


The bad news – at least for those of us teaching in Catholic institutions – did not end there: Smith found that Catholic young people were most likely to be the practitioners of MTD: indeed, Smith used the phrase “incredibly inarticulate” to describe the responses of Catholic young people to his questions. To Smith, this was especially disconcerting, as the Catholic Church sponsors more educational institutions than any other religious group for passing on the faith of the community to young people. Yet Smith found that young Catholics were the least likely to know about the faith and practices of their community, and the least able to articulate – even in a rudimentary way – the rationale for Catholic faith and practice, or their devotion to it.


Personally, I must confess to have some questions about both Smith’s methodology in pursuing his project, and also about his reading of the data gathered. With that being said, I also must confess that the MTD that he lays out in his book is quite common among undergraduates taking the theology courses I have taught. Many of the undergrads I have taught have been smart, theologically literate, and very passionate about their Catholic faith. Others come closer to the practioners of MTD that Smith describes. Being now the dean of a graduate school of theology and ministry at Boston College, I seldom have the opportunity to teach undergrads (a classroom experience I have always loved and valued). But listening to many faculty who do have that opportunity, I wonder if the faith of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is common among the very smart undergrads who get into BC, and what that means for the future of the Catholic Church in North America. I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I think it would be a very interesting – and probably very lively – conversation.

BC Torch on Facebook Visit us on Facebook

Trending Articles

We are an Easter People

by Jeffrey Lindholm